Chicago songwriter Richard Album has been putting out records with Athletic Tapes since 2012. In the past, he’s made gauche, guitar-driven power-pop. Saturday Night Album, his fourth LP in as many years, shows the gawky DIY darling shuffling into new territory with a delightful, self-consciously saccharine cocktail of dance, retro synth funk, and wailed, diary-ready lyricism.
Bright, tight, and hook-laden, these songs are charming little acrylic gems in composition, but Richard Album’s idiosyncratic execution separates him from your token wannabe idol. The palette, borrowed from 80s synth funk, is melodramatic and unapologetically dorky. Moreover––and at the risk of sounding indelicate––Album isn’t what most would call a “good” singer. His voice cracks and warbles around the notes. His timing is off, his delivery stilted and ungraceful. But this is very much the point. His songs and his character appear shallow on the surface, and he’d like you to believe that; but spend time with this record and you’ll be rewarded with a steady stream of sharp wit and embodied social commentary. Album’s off-kilter performance is completely intentional and entirely in-character. When he sings, “The glass is half empty. / Who will buy the next round?” on “boring,” his wavering tone is half-genuine self-pity, half-sly self-deprecation. By virtue of this capacity for conflicted meaning, his appropriation of dance-club regalia manages to be both a light-hearted parody of presentational tropes and a deftly written collection of heartfelt pop tunes.
Each song shows its respective protagonist stumbling through a minefield of awkward social and romantic situations. “who r u” deals with the disappointment of finding that your old flame doesn’t even remember you; “crawling back” is a first-person narrative of humiliation at the hands of a former lover; “facebook group” skewers futile social-media polemics. Album is principally concerned with those moments of shame and unfulfillment which threaten to unravel our carefully curated identities: “who r u” indeed when your principles are revealed to be mistakes or facades, and your memories dismissed as false or unimportant? Album’s music and persona highlights – and even celebrates – the perennial stumbling blocks of friendship and interpersonal connection: pride, disappointment, and miscommunication. He spins embarrassment into parodic ritual, a blush into a toe-tapping beat.
The record is lyrically dense, and there are more than a few whip-smart turns: “He trampled my begonias. / I let bygones be,” Album sings in “donnie,” a hip-swishing number about a socially inept pal. On “crawling back,” the narrator reasons, “Maybe I’m strange, but to change would be untrue.” It’s representative of Album’s art: both emotionally resonant and playfully self-implicating.
The fact that Richard Album titles each of his LPs with double entendres is a clue that he’s a performer who functions on two tiers of meaning: that of the song itself, and that of the performer as constructed identity. Euro-style club banger “take,” for instance, works on its own as a pulsing dance number: “Take away the poetry. / Take me apart. / Take away the tie. / Take away the suit.” The embattled lyrics strip away all of love’s useless accoutrements, and ultimately every other person in the world, exposing the narrator as a fool “shivering and shaking alone in a world so cruel”; in the same words, we can hear Album challenging us to penetrate his persona, daring the listener to take this lugubrious loverboy’s melodies as serious confessions.
And why not? Haven’t we all buttoned up on a Saturday Night, hoping that in the dance we’ll become someone better than ourselves? Richard Album’s approach and concerns are especially apropos in this age of social media, when our identities are so presentational, so deeply reliant on things external to our bodies: the ‘self’ is communicated not only by where we go and what we wear, but the streams of content we choose to associate with––the bands we “like,” the articles we paste next to our hippest headshots. Clothe yourself in whatever you like, whether it be Ralph Lauren or Hot Topic, punk-rock apathy or self-righteous activism; Richard Album’s brand of awkward-pop tells us that even when the lights are low, there are no graceful transformations. If you’re looking for elegance, go elsewhere. But all you lovable fools, rejoice and shake those lanky limbs.